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The Job

Colón, September 7, 1898

Byron had one leg inside his trousers when he was startled by a tap on his back-cabin door.

"Eres despierto?Are you awake in there?"

 "Yes, Miss—‌gimme a second!" He finished pulling on the stiff blue denims, wondering what had prompted the madam out of bed before noon. As he opened the door the damp morning air tingled his bare feet. She looked surprised to see him half-dressed.

"Where are you going so early?"

Her reproachful tone left him off balance. "Don't yuh remember? I told yuh last week. The railway's fixin' to rebuild that old wharf."

A trace of irritation deepened the fresh lines on Estelle Morales' high caramel forehead. "You expect me to remember every little rumor? You should have reminded me. You know I have a lot weighing on my mind these days."

"Sorry," he mumbled, staring at his feet when he saw that she was shivering. The dawn was cool and gray with mist but even as she stood hugging her shoulders in the flimsy nightdress he knew the warmth Estelle was after had nothing to do with the temperature. "I guess I didn't think—"

 Her red puffy eyes shined at him accusingly. "Nobody ever stops to think of my feelings—"

Byron's hopes began to fade as he stepped back to let her inside. Most mornings he would have welcomed the visit but if he was late to the docks he was sure to lose out on the biggest job to come around since the French had picked up and sailed back to France.

"It's been a while—‌hasn't it?" Estelle whispered, her voice strangely thin and childlike.

Byron watched stone-faced as she played a loving hand across the pinewood dresser she had willed him from Constancia's possessions. Why today, of all days, had she come craving for him to stir her pudding? "Don't fret up yuhself. Yuh know I'll stay if yuh want me." He kneaded her tight fleshy shoulder as she plopped herself down on his bed.

"You're making me feel very selfish," she grumbled, gazing at empty space inside the little handmade cabin. "I wish poor Longers was alive. Now that's he's gone no matter what I try—‌it all turns to shit ..."

A jealous spasm pinched his chest. It had never sat well with him that it had taken the big sailor's death to bring them close, and deep down he knew he would never replace her fearsome protector. "Business still that bad?" he asked, distracted as he thought to himself that, at almost thirty-three, it was time he had a full-time job and a full-time lover.

The madam smiled thinly. "Bad as ever. The country is on its knees and we're busy killing each other over who gets to run our monkey government. If these imbeciles end up scaring away the Americans we can kiss that canal good-bye along with our future."

Byron was stunned to pick up the scent of fear on her quivering body. It was true that in Panama every political intrigue seemed to trigger new rounds of murder, but fright rested strangely on the woman who had gotten her start running a bar in Bottle Alley where thirst and carnal desire left all comers prey to every pimp with a dagger in his pocket. Not only had she braved striking deals with thugs and lowlifes, Estelle had saved a good many girls from abuse and despair and made her first fortune by teaching them the magic of a light gliding tongue, a drip of hot wax followed by a touch of ice and the tip of an ostrich feather.

He knelt on the bed and went on massaging her shoulder. "Miss Theresa says yuh been worried yuh might have to let somebody go."

"I pray it doesn't come to that. I've been lucky to have such good honest girls—‌I don't think one of them has ever cheated the house."

"I wudden expect them to! Not after all yuh done for them."

"We helped each other. I worry about the older ones. Theresa has been good enough to take on some new customers but it's past time she stopped working on her back. None of us are getting younger,querido. I was hoping to have more put aside for their old age." Estelle looked at him pleadingly across the curve of her shoulder and seemed to strain beneath an invisible pressure bending the steel in her bones. "These are bad, bad times for a woman to grow old in Colón."

"But yuh not old yet! This the same Miss Estelle who said 'be patient' after the whole town burn down? The one who counsel me that I'd be better off here than back-a-home in the long run? We just have to wait for the Yankees to come to their senses. They're gonna finish what the Frenchies quit and business will pick up right smart—‌I gots to believe it!"

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